When Gen­er­al Grant Expelled the Jews

  • Review
By – March 8, 2012

On Decem­ber 17, 1862, Gen­er­al Ulysses S. Grant, com­man­der of the Depart­ment of Ten­nessee for the Union Army, ordered Jews, as a class,” to be expelled from the depart­ment, which stretched from Cairo, Illi­nois, to north­ern Mis­sis­sip­pi, on pain of arrest if they did not leave with­in twen­ty-four hours of receiv­ing the order. On receiv­ing the order — Gen­er­al Orders No. 11 — Cesar Kaskel, a Pruss­ian Jew­ish immi­grant who lived in Pad­u­c­ah, Ken­tucky, took imme­di­ate action. On Decem­ber 28 he sent a telegram of protest to Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln and a few days lat­er set out for Wash­ing­ton. On Jan­u­ary 3, 1863, he met with Lin­coln, and on Jan­u­ary 4, Lin­coln coun­ter­mand­ed Grant’s order.

As Jonathan Sar­na, pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty and author of Amer­i­can Judaism: A His­to­ry, recounts the sto­ry, Gen­er­al Orders No. 11 marks a piv­otal point in Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. Sar­na notes the ugly rise in anti-Semi­tism dur­ing the Civ­il War — a sen­ti­ment that per­sist­ed well into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry — and the stigma­ti­za­tion of Jews, as a class,” stir­ring ages-old mem­o­ries among Jews in a coun­try they believed to be dif­fer­ent. But Sar­na also reports the wide­spread revul­sion, from Pres­i­dent Lin­coln to state and fed­er­al leg­is­la­tors to the news­pa­pers that cov­ered the order exten­sive­ly, to the idea of sin­gling out a class of peo­ple rather than indi­vid­ual male­fac­tors. A small minor­i­ty com­pris­ing only about half a per­cent of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, Jews were empow­ered by their abil­i­ty to reverse Gen­er­al Orders No. 11 and gained per­son­al and polit­i­cal con­fi­dence from the inci­dent. In the elec­tion of 1868, when Grant ran for the pres­i­den­cy, Jews open­ly weighed the elec­tion issues from both the nation­al and Jew­ish point of view.

His­to­ri­ans dis­agree on Grant’s atti­tude toward Jews. Sar­na finds him a sym­pa­thet­ic fig­ure, point­ing to his pub­lic apolo­gies and regret for the order, prob­a­bly pro­voked by the smug­gling that under­mined the war effort, that dogged his career. In his pres­i­den­cy Grant was an out­spo­ken advo­cate for human rights domes­ti­cal­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly, and appoint­ed Jews to more posts than any pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent. When Gen­er­al Grant Expelled the Jews records a lit­tle not­ed event in Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry that reveals a great deal about Jew­ish-Amer­i­can life before the great immi­gra­tions of the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. This is a vol­ume in the Next­book series. Chronol­o­gy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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